The Wild Harvest, How Nature Provides
by Amy Miller
This time of the summer comes with great anticipation on our farm. This is the season of one of the most satisfying harvests, the wild harvest. Once the time is right and the cherries are ready (towards the end of July or sometimes as late as mid-August), we head out to our trusty picking spots as a family each evening for about a week and harvest chokecherries. We are lucky to own the same piece of land that my husband’s family homesteaded back in 1913, and it has a ton of chokecherry bushes scattered throughout the various draws and coulees. Chokecherries are typically a prairie-grown fruit and seem to be predominantly around in Alberta and Saskatchewan. They form a large bush or small tree depending on the area. Over time they tend to self-seed themselves and the strongest survive to be covered in flowers and then cherries.
Even the kids love to get in on the picking, and each year their endurance has improved! Typically we each take an ice cream pail, anchored to our waist with a belt and find the bush with the plumpest looking cherries in the most compact area. This way we get the most amount of fruit picked in the shortest period of time. Contests soon start up to see who can fill their pail first or at least who can fill theirs up the fullest before having to go dump into the larger pails back at the truck. For the syrups that I make, I prefer the darkest purple cherries possible. You can pick the more red cherries but they are better for jelly. Each night of harvesting cherries, we typically bring back a couple of 5-gallon pails full.
On good years, the fruiting stems are full of plump cherries that are super easy to pick and this is what we look for. Over the years we have noted which bushes are better and where the picking is easiest. With the drought that our area of the province has been going through over the past few years, it has been tough to find the better cherries. Those bushes that grow where the snow lays deep, where the spring melts run, or where there is an underground spring do the best as they require a higher amount of water to develop plump fruit. The other factor that influences our harvest is the weather that happened during late May and early June when the bushes are in full bloom. Those bushes that are down in the draws versus out and exposed to the wind, maintain their blossoms long enough for the bees to find.
What does one do with gallons and gallons of chokecherries you may wonder? Syrup! Sweet, dark purple, and amazing tasting syrup. Many of our customers refer to it as “just like grandma used to make.” Once the cherries are brought back to the house, I typically start processing them right away. If you wait too long they start to mold and/or squish due to their high moisture content. Once rinsed and the leaves, the occasional branch bits, and the dried fruit are removed, I process them using my steamer juicer. I find it easiest that way, as I can load the top compartment up with cherries, fill the bottom water part up, and go work on other tasks while it does the work for me. As the juice is extracted from the fruit it gets collected and drained into containers. Sometimes, if there is too much work to be done with other projects, I freeze the juice to be used later. If I have the time that week, then the juice is turned into syrup, packaged, labelled and ready for our customers.
The wild harvest is a nice break for us because there is not the upkeep and management of the crop while it grows. All of our animals and gardens require so much physical work year round. You stress about the animals’ well-being. You stress about having enough food for them. You stress about whether or not the grasshoppers will leave you enough to eat from your garden. Chokecherries are the exact opposite. They are rewarding in the fact that we don’t have to plant them, water or weed them. Sure there are birds that enjoy them and bugs but some of the bushes typically grow so tall that we can’t harvest all of them. It’s nice that nature can enjoy them just as much as we do, all we have to do is pick and process them.
Now, I know you are hoping for my recipe to be listed in this article but, sorry folks, that’s my family secret. Chokecherry syrup can go on so many things. It’s good on pancakes, waffles, and crepes which most people know, but have you ever had chokecherry yogurt or put it on vanilla ice cream? This winter I also discovered that it is cream in a mocha on a cold morning in place of the sugar. There are even stories of bachelors in our area, back in the day, that would put the syrup on toast and call it a meal. It is usable in so many things. I hope you are able to find some for yourself and enjoy it.
Since I can’t be sharing my syrup recipe, here is our farm recipe for Fluffy Pancakes that are just begging to have chokecherry syrup poured over them. I hope you enjoy it as much as we do! Enjoy your summer and may you find time for your own wild harvested fruit! Cheers!
Fluffy Pancakes (single recipe serves 2–3)
1 cup milk (we prefer whole milk)
2 tbsp vinegar
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 tbsp melted butter
1 medium/large egg
Combine milk and vinegar and allow to sit for about 5 minutes. While you are waiting, combine the flours, baking powder and baking soda. Sometimes for something different I like to add a teaspoon of cinnamon and a couple pinches of nutmeg. Once the milk and vinegar have sat for 5 minutes, using a whisk, mix the milk mixture and egg into the dry ingredients until there are no clumps. Then stir in the melted butter and you are ready to cook pancakes on either your trusty griddle or stick-free frying pan. If you are worried about them sticking, melt a little bit of butter on your pan first.
Amy & Dustin Miller live an hour and a half south of Moose Jaw, at Sage Valley Farm with their two children. They pasture raise pigs and chickens as well as a small herd of grass-fed beef, several gardens, and a few bee hives. They strive to keep their farm not only sustainable for their kids’ future but regenerative and always improving the land. They are members of The Farmers’ Table (see the ad on page9 of the 29.2 July/August issue of the WHOLifE Journal).